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The Pentagon Papers and the Public’s Right to Know

Daniel Ellsberg at panel on a

Daniel Ellsberg at panel on a “Nuclear Free World” in New York. April 8, 2010. Photo by Thomas Good.

Executive privilege and democratic principles of transparency and accountability have long had a tenuous relationship, especially when it comes to national security matters. Forty-one years ago today, the New York Times began publishing a series of articles based on a 47-volume, classified study of U.S. involvement in South Asia from World War II to 1968. The Pentagon Papers, commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in June 1967, revealed that administrations from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson had deliberated and knowingly deceived the American public and Congress about the conduct of the Vietnam War. Much of the debate around the release of the papers arguably centered on this question: does the public have the right to know?

“Right to know” was the justification of the New York Times for publishing the Pentagon Papers. President Richard Nixon disagreed. In a telephone conversation President Nixon told White House Political Operative Chuck Colson, “That’s of course a goddamn code word, ‘right to know.’ The public has no right to know secret documents.”

Daniel Ellsberg, the defense analyst who released the study to the Times, held the conviction that the American public and Congress should not be kept in the dark on the policies and decisions that had led to escalating American involvement in Vietnam. He believed that American and Vietnamese lives could have been saved if the public was privy to the same information as the executive branch.

Mr. Ellsberg doesn’t regret his decision. Indeed, he has said he wished he did it sooner. He has also continued to be an advocate for government whistleblowers and protection for them. Last year, Mr. Ellsberg said:

The Pentagon Papers, the whole episode, reveals the power [government insiders] could have to save lives, and to save this country from a disaster, if they were willing to risk their own careers.

As Miller Center analysis of phone and tape recordings have revealed, the Pentagon Papers marked a major turning point Richard Nixon’s presidency. The episode was also a catalyst for President Nixon’s downfall because it convinced him that there was a left-wing conspiracy to topple his administration and undermine his authority.

But the episode is also indicative of a broader pattern in American political development. The aggrandizement of the executive branch and the rise of the national security state, particularly since World War II, have had important implications for checks and balances on presidential authority. While there have been some important instances when Congress has constrained the president, by and large executive power is the sine qua non of national security policy. Recent articles on President Obama’s secret kill list, cyber attacks and the administration’s ongoing attempts to silence leaks make the discussion of presidential authority in national security policy all the more relevant. How much power the executive holds, whether there are sufficient checks on that power, and what should be kept secret or transparent in the policy making process should be ongoing topics for debate in this election and into the future. So, we leave you with this question: When it comes to national security, does the public have the right to know?

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